Early in "Thor: Ragnarok," the third film entry of the Norse god's solo adventures, Loki (disguised as Odin) is watching a play featuring fake Thor, Loki and Odin. It's an exact recreation of Loki's fake death scene in "Thor: The Dark World," rendered hilarious here by surprising celebrity cameos. Director Taika Waititi is sending a clear message: this is not like the underwhelming, super-serious movies that came before. In fact, it's exactly the opposite.
Anyone that's seen the New Zealand director's beloved cult comedy "What We Do in the Shadows" is familiar with his pension for quirky scenes, improvised dialogue and hysterical situational comedy. However, when it was announced that Waititi would be taking on the next film in Marvel's multi-billion dollar universe, fans developed a sort of cautious optimism. A weird buddy-comedy starring Thor and Hulk sounds funny, but could it actually be pulled off without straying from Marvel's tried-and-true formula? And, more importantly, could these characters actually be funny? The answers are yes, and abso-freakin-lutely. "Ragnarok" is a riot and a blast, from start to finish.
The plot itself is standard heroic fare. Thor, scouring the universe for the remaining Infinity Stones, is plagued by dreams prophesying Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods and the total destruction of his homeland Asgard. And right on time, a new foe appears: Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett), bent on capturing Asgard and using it to power her universal conquest. She breaks Thor's hammer and sends him with Loki to Sakaar, a multi-dimensional dumpster where discarded items (and people) are sent to die. Here, Thor is imprisoned and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena, where he runs into his old pal Hulk and hatches a plot to stop Hela's reign of destruction.
As a superhero movie, this works just fine. The conflicts are clear, Hela's villainy is boosted by a solid performance from Blanchett, and there's a unique twist on the blockbuster formula in the third act. However, "Ragnarok" excels in the comedic framing of this war between gods. Seeing Thor hammerless and exiled could've been milked for some dramatic weight (it already happened in the first movie) but here, it's made funny. More importantly, Thor's frenemy relationship with Loki is satirized in some very clever ways.
The primary comedic fuel in "Ragnarok" is its cast of characters. It's miraculous how great everyone is here: there's Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as the feuding gods, Mark Ruffalo as a more verbose but equally angry Hulk, Tessa Thompson as the fierce (but drunken) warrior Valkyrie, national treasure Jeff Goldblum basically playing himself as the colorful, oddball Grandmaster and Waititi himself as Korg, the giant rock man so funny and charming that he might surpass Groot as Marvel's best supporting character. It's remarkable how well these actors build off one another's jokes, especially considering that most of them aren't known for improvisational comedy. Who would've thought that Chris Hemsworth could be downright hilarious?
"Ragnarok" is one of Marvel Studios' biggest, yet also most calculated, risks this side of "Ant-Man." If you take one of the Avengers that is recognizable but not a fan favorite, pick a strange but consistent creative team, and focus on the comedy without throwing away your formula, will it work? The answer, based on the film's impressive box office success, is yes. In fact, "Ragnarok" may be one of Marvel's biggest home runs thus far, which bodes well for a franchise that has now been running for over a decade. Maybe Marvel hasn't lost its steam yet. If it can continue to make films as pleasurable, as decidedly joyful and joyous, as "Ragnarok," then perhaps the franchise's golden days are still ahead of it. After all, the weirdest stuff can also be the best. Thor, with the help of a funny New Zealand rock man and Jeff Goldblum, has just proven that.